What Is Oral Sex?

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on January 11, 2024
6 min read

Oral sex is a common sex act among couples of all ages and genders. Also referred to as fellatio or cunnilingus, it involves oral stimulation of a partner’s genitals or anus.

Oral sex is often a part of foreplay before intercourse. Many couples use it as a way to warm up or to get in the mood for intercourse, but oral stimulation can also play a part during or after, too. It can also be just as pleasurable as a standalone act.

Oral sex requires a partner and whichever position works most comfortably. One partner uses their mouth, lips, or tongue to stimulate their partner’s penis, vagina, or anus. Oral sex gives you and your partner another way to pleasure each other apart from regular genital intercourse.

Eighty-five percent of sexually active adults between the ages of 18 and 44 report having had oral sex at least once with a partner of the opposite sex. However, it’s important to note that oral pleasure isn’t just for heterosexual couples. People in both same-sex or mixed-sex relationships can enjoy giving or receiving oral stimulation with their partner.

The feelings generated by different oral sex positions can vary from person to person. Below are descriptions of some oral sex positions. 

Lying on your back

Your partner lies on their back while you lie in front of them. You then use your mouth to stimulate their organs. The oral sex position can be performed with a male or female partner. Some people prefer placing their legs around a partner's head to allow more access to the genital area. For example, you may find it easier to access your partner's clitoris or testicles from this oral sex position.  

An alternative to this position involves your partner sliding forward until their buttocks are on the edge of the bed, couch, or other support. You position yourself in front of them by kneeling or standing, whichever is your preference. Your partner might find it more comfortable to place their feet on your shoulders or let them hang over. 

On all fours

For this oral sex position, your partner balances themselves on their hands and knees. They can choose to spread their legs or keep them close together. You move behind them so you can use your mouth on their genital area. The position makes it possible for you to adjust the pressure applied with your mouth, lips, and tongue. 

Sitting forward on the face

Your partner lies on their back while you kneel over their face. The person who will be the receiver in this oral sex position faces their partner’s head with their knees on each side of their head. Some people prefer resting their arms on a headboard or other nearby support. The oral sex position puts more control in the hands of the person who is receiving oral sex.  

You can also perform an alternative version of this oral sex position by reversing your position and sitting on your partner while facing their lower body. Some people prefer balancing themselves by resting their hands on the bed or their partner’s chest or hips. 

Simultaneous stimulation

You lie on your back while your partner positions themselves on top of you with their genitals by your face. They should also have their face near your genitals. Both of you apply your lips, mouth, and tongue to that area at the same time.   

An alternative to having one person lying on their back is to have both of you lie on your side. The oral sex position should allow you both to apply your mouths to each other’s genital area at the same time.

Oral sex can have many different names, both formal and informal. Experts have given the various types of oral stimulation their own medical terms:

Fellatio. Stimulation of the penis with the lips, tongue, or teeth. It usually involves a sucking or licking motion, but may also include the use of the throat or teeth.

Cunnilingus. Stimulation of the vagina or clitoris with the mouth. This usually includes sucking or licking outside and around the vulva.

Anilingus. Stimulation of the anus with the mouth or lips.

Although these are the clinical terms, there are also more casual terms to describe oral sex, which include:

  • Going down
  • Giving head
  • Rimming
  • 69
  • Blow job

While oral sex may be a fairly common practice, there are a few misconceptions surrounding it:

Myth: Oral sex is not sex. Studies of teenagers and college students in the past decades show that many don’t consider oral sex to be real sex. Instead, they see it as a pleasurable activity that is lower-risk and allows them to preserve their virginity. Reports also show that many teens and young adults try oral sex before they engage in genital intercourse.

However, while oral pleasure is distinctly different from sexual intercourse, it is still considered a sexual act. Oral sex involves genital contact and is an intimate act. It can be just as pleasurable as sexual intercourse, and also has some of the same risks involved, too.

Myth: Eating specific foods changes the taste of your body fluids. There are no published studies that back up this idea. Most of the information around this topic comes from anecdotal descriptions. 

Myth: You can't injure yourselfin an oral sex position. You can cause trauma to your partner’s genital area, and women can have changes to the pH of their vagina after receiving oral sex, which might cause some irritation.

Oral sex can be given or received by people of all genders, and it’s important to ensure that both partners are consenting.

Talk to your partner about trying oral sex. The first step is to communicate with your partner about giving each other oral pleasure. Some studies show that heterosexual women may be more hesitant to ask their male partner for oral sex. However, that same study also showed that men wanted to perform oral sex more often with their partners.

Talk to your partner about how you can pleasure each other, as oral stimulation is such an intimate act. You can begin by kissing, touching, and then gradually move on to using your mouth on your partner in a way that they like.

Possible risks. Oral sex comes with the risk of contracting an STD. If you are engaging in casual oral sex, use protection like a condom or dental dam. These products can protect both you and your partner and lower the likelihood of getting an STD.

If you or your partner have cuts, sores, or ulcers in your mouth or around your genitals or anus, avoid oral sex until they are healed or treated to avoid further complications. Not all symptoms of STDs are clear right away and can cause problems with fertility and general health.

Even though oral sex doesn’t come with the risk of pregnancy, there is still the risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). While it’s true the chances of getting an STD through oral sex are a bit lower than with genital sex, the risk is still there. Some common STDs that can be passed orally are:

Oral sex and herpes

You can pass herpes through contact with the infected area and a cut or break in the skin and your mouth or genitals. You can also transmit it even when you don't have symptoms. If you or your partner has herpes symptoms, it's best to avoid oral sex and kissing on the mouth until they've gone away. 

Oral sex and HIV

You can also transmit HIV to your partner during unprotected oral sex. As with other sexually transmitted infections, you can get HIV through oral sex when the virus comes into contact with an opening in the skin.

Oral sex doesn't directly cause cancer, but it can raise your odds of getting the human papillomavirus (HPV), which may lead to cancer. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. The types of HPV doctors find in your mouth are usually sexually transmitted, which means they're likely caused by oral sex. 

While most strains of HPV are harmless, some can cause cancer, including cancer of the throat and oropharynx (back of the throat, including the tonsils and base of the tongue). These types of cancers are increasing, but fewer than 1% of people who get HPV will form a related cancer.

Health experts suggest using condoms and dental dams to lower your chances of getting HPV and cancer. The HPV vaccine can also protect against these conditions.